Feb Q&A (3)
Q: Jaimee asks, I was wondering if you have ever thought of writing a travelogue or a memoir? Your descriptions of locale throughout all of your books are fascinating, and through your blog I have really enjoyed your personal stories about your experiences (such as the cockroach story). Reading your books tends to make me want to pack a suitcase so it made me wonder…
A: If I ever write an autobiography, I will probably use the sections on travel as I did in the one on my web site, in order to illustrate how I draw on the experiences of travel in the writing process. When I was actually on the road, most of the time it was like being tossed in a sack, tiring and uncomfortable and very, very confusing.
Gives you some great stories, though.
Q: I’m curious about your current favorite mystery writers … those who are alive and writing today. Could you list a few, or would that put you too much on the spot? There seem to be a lot of promising newcomers on the shelves these days.
A: I read everyone. At least, it seems that way. I particularly love first-time novels, which have probably more energy in them than any five novels that writer will produce in the future. The list of nominees for Best First Novel over on the MWA site is a good place to start, and you can look at last year’e2’80’99s nominees to see those recommended by the committee I chaired.
I also like the Brits a lot. UK publishing has veered far over the line into the gritty serial killer book, which leaves me yawning, but writers like Catherine Sampson and Zoe Sharp are a joy.
Q: WMD, er, I mean WDI asks, I’m curious about how much backstory you develop for your “series” characters. Do you envision entire lives from childhood, or broad outlines that fill themselves in as new stories develop? I’m interested in this as a general question, but also as it applies to some of Russell’e2’80’99s physical skills. She’s a good rider, but we don’t know much about when she learned or how she keeps it up. Ditto with her martial arts — we know when she started training, but not whether or not (or how) she maintains her skills. Do you carry a sort of vision of her life in which those things play a part, or do you simply allow the skills to manifest as needed and assume she takes care of them herself?(I hope that makes sense!)
A: It’e2’80’99s always a fine line with larger-than-life characters like Russell, what sorts of skills are realistic and which have the reader declaring, Oh come on now. Someone like Russell, raised by money in London and America, would have learned to ride as a child, and although she would have had far sorer muscles than I give her when she rides again after a break, the skill is there. The martial arts thing is mentioned often enough that clearly, she practices with some regularity.
For the most part, you don’e2’80’99t tend to write about a character’e2’80’99s abilities and habits unless you need them for the story. At the same time, the acquisition of new skills has to fit with what we know of the character. So for example when Russell has an immersion course in Hindi, and gains a working knowledge of the language in a month, it’e2’80’99s not too far outside the bounds of possibility. It has already been established that she spends a lot of time with foreign languages, living and dead, so when I came across the results of a language-learning contest held in Oxford, won by two young women who started from scratch and in a month could recite a poem and carry on a simple conversation in their assigned language, well, why not Mary Russell?
Q: Thank you for writing the Mary Russell series. My post-exams reward was to sit in front of the heater with Locked Rooms and a hot chocolate. Sheer bliss. A question that popped into my head last night (I hope it’s not too personal – or worse, airheaded):Can writers make good money from their writings alone? Not including whatever they get from movie deals or merchandise.
A: I’e2’80’99m glad to have provided a comfort moment for a hard-working student. I seem to have an entire subset of readers who indulge in Russell post-exam, perhaps we ought to have annual cocoa parties?
Anyway. It is possible to make a living off writing (which I assume is what you mean by ‘e2’80’9cgood money’e2’80’9d) if you are very lucky, very hard working, and possess a modicum of talent. The average income of a writer is well under $10,000, which in my county might buy you a cardboard box and a bus pass to the soup kitchen.
I happen to have a modicum of talent, I am (to my own surprise) hard-working to the point of obsession, and certainly I have had more luck than I probably deserve. I make a living off my words, the books you buy put a roof over my head, and every day I am grateful for the opportunity to keep on doing what I love. Yes, even on days when the writing goes badly and I feel too stupid to live, I am grateful. I have friends whose writing barely pays for itself, when you factor in typing and child care costs, but they continue to do it. I like to think I would do the same, if I had full-time employment elsewhere.
You have to want it. A lot.
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More on the progress of TOUCHSTONE in a few days.